The contest for the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat is now unlikely to witness a high-profile clash with the Congress party finally ending the suspense over the possible candidature of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, and announcing Ajay Rai as the candidate against Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the city of Ganga. Rai was the Congress candidate from Varanasi in 2014 too, but the presence of Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal had given an interesting twist to the contest.
Ironically, the Congress decision came on a day when Varanasi witnessed a massive show of strength by Modi as he arrived in Varanasi on his campaign trail. He will file his nomination on Friday April 26. Clearly, the decision by the party not to field Priyanka dampened the spirits of local Congress supporters as they were looking forward to a memorable clash in this city. The possibility of a triangular contest with Ajay Rai from the Congress and a little-known Shalini Yadav from the Samajwadi Party pitted against Modi has diluted the intensity of the contest in Varanasi.
The joint candidate of the SP, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal, Shalini Yadav is the daughter-in-law of late Shyamlal Yadav, a former Congress MP from Varanasi, a former deputy chairperson of Rajya Sabha, and also a former Union minister. She was the mayoral candidate of the Congress from Varanasi in 2017 local bodies’ elections, and joined the SP earlier this week. Interestingly, she had mentioned “problems” with the “working and the broken promises of the Congress,” as reasons for leaving the party, while the district Congress had claimed that Shalini was recently removed from the party for “anti-party activities.”
In the 2014 election, Modi had won the seat with 5.81 lakh votes while Arvind Kejriwal came second with 2.09 lakh votes, Ajay Rai of the Congress had stood third with 75,614 votes and the SP and BSP had managed 45,291 and 60,579 votes respectively.
Modi has been campaigning across the country almost on a daily basis with meetings lined up from morning till late evening, and today also he had addressed rallies in Darbhanga in Bihar and Banda in UP before reaching Varanasi. He arrived in Varanasi around 2pm and the roadshow started a little after 3pm. Accompanying him were many Union ministers, BJP president Amit Shah, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, UP BJP president Mahendra Nath Pandey and others. Many flower-decorated vehicles, welcome gates and showering of flower petals marked the roadshow that continued for about 5 km on the streets of Varanasi. Hundreds of people lined up both sides of the roadshow route and also could be seen on rooftops of houses to catch a glimpse of Modi who stood atop an open vehicle.
Already, BJP supporters had started taking a dig at the Congress developing cold feet at fielding Priyanka against Modi. The creation of hype around Priyanka being a probable challenger to Modi in Varanasi had been started by the Congress party itself a few weeks ago, and even Rahul had kept up the ruse, saying “let there be some suspense for now.” On her part, Priyanka had expressed her willingness to join the fray, but had left it to the party to take a call. What the party president – her brother Rahul – has finally decided, has the potential to embarrass the party campaign in the coming days.
During the course of the day, Priyanka herself participated in a roadshow in Jhansi. She also addressed meetings in Jhansi and Orai. In her earlier outings in UP, she used to ask the gathering comprising mostly women whether she should contest from Varanasi, and the response usually was a resounding “yes.” Now, even this opportunity is lost to her.
Varanasi is scheduled to go to polls in the seventh and last round on May 19. Besides the Congress and SP candidates, some notable contenders include Tej Bahadur Yadav, the former constable in the BSF who was dismissed from service after alleging poor quality of food, retired judge of Calcutta High Court Justice C S Karnan who was the first sitting judge to be convicted for contempt by the Supreme Court and a group of disgruntled farmers from Tamil Nadu. Chandra Shekhar Azad, the Bhim Army chief and a young, emerging Dalit leader, had also announced some time ago that he would contest from Varanasi, but a few days later he said he had decided against it.
There have been reposts of resentment among a section of people in Varanasi over widespread demolition for the construction of the Vishwanath temple corridor, and the opposition parties have been trying to turn it into an election issue. Many opposition leaders have announced that they would come to Varanasi to campaign against Modi in the coming days. With both the Congress and the SP having fielded their candidates, it remains to be seen what shape the opposition campaign acquires now.